• Baltimore City Paper

Bob Woodward and The Great Man Theory of Journalism

Bob Woodward was gracious and worldly to a group of about 30 academics, a smattering of reporters, and one ex-cop/ex-con/talk radio host, whose question the consummate insider reporter seemed to misconstrue.

Woodward was in town for his annual Baltimore Speakers Series appearance at the Meyerhoff. During a pre-lecture dinner (beautiful roast and some kind of richly sauced fish, maybe grouper, with grilled asparagus, whole baby carrots, a walnut/roasted apple salad with a fine bleu cheese, plus crab cakes and an open bar) at the InterContinental Harbor Court, our Stevenson University hosts wired Woodward for sound. The


Washington Post

associate editor set off by asking what lessons--and not necessarily negative ones--the Obama administration might draw from the outgoing Bushies.

It was a perfectly Woodwardian question, seemingly value-neutral yet potentially interesting. But the group quickly got off track and on to less neutral stuff. The talk turned from the wars to the economy and back again.

Woodward's insights were paltry for a guy who got so much face time with the main players. He said he never doubted Bush's sincerity (and drew a sharp line between Bush and Nixon, saying Nixon's motivation was always selfish, Bush's never).

At one point he was asked by a professor at Hopkins' Peabody Institute if maybe his singular focus on the men and women who wield power might be missing a larger picture--that is, if the "Great Man" theory of history perhaps lacks the requisite explanatory heft. Woodward replied that he missed nothing, that wars are a nation's defining events and that the people who conduct them (whether great or not) are of primary importance.

Then Woodward was asked to speculate on the one historical event to which he can lay claim of greatest expertise. WJZ radio host Ed Norris wanted to know why the heck Mark Felt--"Deep Throat"--waited until he was 91 to fess up.

Felt was, after all, the number two man at the FBI. It wasn't like he was gonna end up in an alley somewhere if he took credit for his deed, Norris reasoned. And then too--why go to the press? As a law enforcer Felt swore to uphold the Constitution. Why not build a case against the perpetrators?

It was too much for Woodward. He claimed that Felt was trying to protect the FBI itself, not his own reputation. But Woodward seemed to take the question as an affront--as if Norris were saying that Felt should not have tried to bring down the conspiracy.

"I don't want to call you a bad cop," Woodward said at one point, perhaps an unknowingly cutting jibe at Norris.

Aside from this misunderstanding, Woodward came off as a good reader of people. He was unfailingly pleasant even as he defended himself against criticisms not levied. It is a marvelous skill, no doubt important in his cultivation of so many high-level sources. It is the mask of a politician.

Nobody followed up on this, but the exchange with Norris laid bare the culture of Washington and its contrast to the culture of forthrightness that Americans claim as their own. Washington insiders do not criticize friends or enemies openly, as this would risk ostracism and job security. So they whisper, sometimes to Woodward, what they claim to really think. Woodward takes these whisperings at face value, prizing secret opinion above documentation, observation, and sometimes common sense.

The books sell, the $20,000 speaking fees roll in (Woodward reportedly donates them to his own foundation), and the back-biting culture metastasizes--to the benefit of all who have achieved a certain station inside the beltway. Having Woodward's ear means never having to stand up and be counted.

Someone at the table praised Woodward as "our best investigative reporter" and asked him to inveigh on the state of American journalism and its alleged "bias." Woodward demurred, saying he had to save that for his speech. But one wonders: Can the man who effectively absolved George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan of their crimes with an unlikely death-bed quote from William Casey, and who cheerily pronounced Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan the "Maestro," and who fell hard for Bush's transparently ginned-up "weapons of mass destruction" claims muster any credibility on this question?